First-ever Saudi film made by female director

First-ever Saudi film made by female director

VENICE, Italy - Agence France-Presse
First-ever Saudi film made by female director

Haifaa Al Mansour, the director of ‘Wadjda,’ has premiered her film at the Venice film festival, and explained how she beat the odds to produce the film in the country. AFP Photo

The female director of Saudi Arabia’s first feature film, showing at the Venice film festival, has explained how she beat the odds to produce the heartwarming tale of a girl’s quest to own a bicycle.

In Haifaa Al Mansour’s landmark film “Wadjda,” 10-year-old Waad Mohammed plays a girl who is also testing the boundaries of a woman’s place in a highly conservative society where her love for Western music and fashions land her in trouble.

Mohammed’s impish personality and resilience in the face of adversity add to the poignancy of the story and left some of the film’s first viewers in tears.

“She had this vulnerability and she embodied what a Saudi teenager is,” Al Mansour said. “I wanted to show the tension between modernity and tradition,” she said.

Directing from a van

Al Mansour said she was forced to direct what is her first feature film from a van with a walkie-talkie in some of the more conservative neighborhoods where she could not be seen in public together with male crew and cast members.
In some areas, screaming local residents would block shooting altogether. She said finding financing also posed a problem in a country where cinemas are officially banned and any film is considered a commercial risk.
“Wadjda” will only be available in the kingdom on DVD or on television. “There is no film in Saudi Arabia. Showing films in public is illegal so we don’t have this culture of filmmaking. I was never able to go on a film set and get training and see how things are. It was very difficult,” she said.

“Wadjda” was co-produced by Germany’s Razor Film and several Saudi companies including Rotana Studios which is linked to the Saudi royal family.

The rights have already been sold in France, Germany and Switzerland. For all the implicit criticism of the state of women’s rights in Saudi in the film, Al Mansour said things are gradually changing and having a Saudi prince on board showed that officialdom was supportive of this shift.
“The fact that we shot a film in Saudi Arabia with permission and everything says a lot about the country. It says the country is embracing art,” she said. “I think the authorities really want to see more films,” she added.